Everything You Should Know About Servant Leadership

July 01, 2024 by Cynthia Orduña

Leadership approaches are continually evolving to better meet the needs of both employees and the broader community. Among these approaches, servant leadership stands out as a philosophy that places the well-being and development of team members at the forefront. Unlike traditional leadership models, which often emphasize the accumulation and exercise of power, servant leadership is characterized by a deep commitment to serving others.

In this article, we will explore the core tenets of servant leadership, define the seven pillars of servant leadership characteristics as outlined by James Sipe and Don Frick, and provide real-world examples of servant leadership in action.

What Is Servant Leadership?

Servant leadership is a leadership philosophy in which the primary goal of the leader is to serve others. This approach emphasizes the leader’s role as a caretaker who prioritizes the well-being, growth, and empowerment of their team. A servant leader focuses on the needs of others, especially team members, and works to help them develop and perform as effectively as possible. Unlike traditional leadership, which typically concentrates on the accumulation and exercise of power, servant leadership involves sharing power and putting the needs of employees and communities first.

The concept of servant leadership was first articulated by Robert K. Greenleaf in his seminal 1970 essay, “The Servant as Leader.” Greenleaf was an executive at AT&T for many years, and later founded the Greenleaf Center for Servant Leadership. His idea was inspired by Hermann Hesse’s novel Journey to the East in which the main character, Leo, is a servant who turns out to be the pivotal leader of the group.

In his essay, Greenleaf argued that the best leaders are those who are servants first. He suggested that this type of leadership fosters environments in which everyone can grow and succeed, and that it is a more ethical and effective way to lead.

Many organizations have incorporated servant leadership principles into their management practices. Notable examples include companies like Southwest Airlines and Starbucks, which have been recognized for their commitment to employee well-being and customer satisfaction.

If you are looking to elevate your own organization’s leaders with servant leadership principles and other exemplary leadership models, click below to speak with one of our experts and learn more about our Careerminds leadership coaching and development services.

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What Are the Qualities of a Servant Leader?

Robert K. Greenleaf did not go so far as to define the key servant leadership characteristics in his foundational work. James Sipe and Don Frick built upon Robert K. Greenleaf’s foundational ideas to outline these in their book Seven Pillars of Servant Leadership. These pillars encapsulate the essential qualities and core values of a servant leader. 

Here is an overview of these seven servant leadership characteristics and their definitions:

1. Person of Character

A servant leader maintains integrity, demonstrates humility, and serves a higher purpose.

This pillar emphasizes the importance of moral and ethical behavior. A person of character is honest, trustworthy, and transparent. They show humility by acknowledging their limitations and valuing the contributions of others. Serving a higher purpose means they are driven by values and principles that transcend personal gain.

2. Puts People First

A servant leader prioritizes the needs of others, empowers them, and helps them develop.

This pillar highlights the servant leader’s focus on the well-being and growth of individuals. They actively listen to their team members, support their personal and professional development, and create opportunities for them to thrive. Empowering others involves delegating authority and fostering a sense of ownership and responsibility.

3. Skilled Communicator

A servant leader listens earnestly and speaks effectively.

Effective communication is crucial for servant leadership. Skilled communicators are adept at active listening, ensuring they understand the perspectives and needs of others. They also articulate their vision and expectations clearly, fostering open and transparent communication within their teams and organizations.

4. Compassionate Collaborator

A servant leader builds teams and communities, strengthens relationships, and helps others succeed.

This pillar focuses on the importance of collaboration and relationship-building. Servant leaders create inclusive environments where teamwork and mutual support are encouraged. They work to strengthen bonds within their organizations and communities, promoting a culture of compassion and collective success.

5. Foresight

A servant leader imagines possibilities, anticipates future trends, and acts with purpose.

Foresight involves the ability to envision the future and prepare for it proactively. Servant leaders use their understanding of current trends and potential challenges to make informed decisions. They act with a long-term perspective, ensuring that their actions align with their organization’s mission and values.

6. Systems Thinker

A servant leader thinks and acts strategically, leads with moral authority, and sees the big picture.

Systems thinking involves understanding the interconnectedness of various elements within an organization or community. Servant leaders use this holistic perspective to make strategic decisions that consider the broader impact. Leading with moral authority means guiding others based on ethical principles and a clear vision of the greater good.

7. Moral Authority

A servant leader inspires trust through their integrity and ethical behavior, earning respect and loyalty. 

This pillar underscores the importance of leading by example. Servant leaders gain moral authority through their consistent adherence to ethical standards and their commitment to doing what is right. This integrity inspires trust and loyalty from their followers, creating a foundation for effective and enduring leadership.

These seven servant leadership characteristics serve as guiding principles for leaders who seek to adopt the servant leadership approach. By embodying these principles, people who strive to be servant leaders can create positive, ethical, and sustainable impact within their organizations and communities.

Servant Leadership Examples

​​Servant leadership is practiced in multiple contexts and by numerous leaders across different sectors of our modern society. Here are some notable examples that illustrate how servant leadership can be effectively applied across various domains:

Non-Profit Organizations

Mother Teresa, Missionaries of Charity: Mother Teresa’s life and work exemplify servant leadership. She dedicated herself to serving the poorest and most vulnerable, focusing on their needs and well-being.

Bill and Melinda Gates, Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation: Through their foundation, Bill and Melinda Gates have committed vast resources to address global health, education, and poverty issues, reflecting their dedication to serving humanity.

Educational Services

Ken Blanchard, The Ken Blanchard Companies: Ken Blanchard is a prominent advocate for servant leadership in educational and corporate settings. His work and writings have influenced many leaders to adopt servant leadership principles.

Public Sector

Nelson Mandela, former president of South Africa: Mandela’s leadership during and after the apartheid era is a powerful example of servant leadership. He focused on reconciliation, healing, and the long-term well-being of South African society.

Jacinda Ardern, former prime minister of New Zealand: Ardern’s response to crises, including the Christchurch mosque shootings and the COVID-19 pandemic, were marked by empathy, compassion, and a strong commitment to the well-being of her citizens.

Healthcare Industry

Paul Farmer, Partners In Health: Dr. Paul Farmer co-founded Partners In Health, an organization dedicated to providing quality healthcare to impoverished communities around the world. His leadership is rooted in a deep commitment to serving the underprivileged.

Religious Organizations

Pope Francis, Roman Catholic Church: Pope Francis is known for his humility and focus on serving the poor and marginalized. His leadership style emphasizes simplicity, compassion, and social justice.

Sports Industry

John Wooden, former coach of UCLA Bruins: Wooden, considered one of the greatest coaches in basketball history, focused on developing his players as individuals and leaders, emphasizing character and personal growth over winning.

Servant Leadership Advantages and Disadvantages

Various leadership styles offer unique advantages and disadvantages, making them more or less suitable depending on the circumstances. When assessed using a leadership style grid, servant leaders typically demonstrate a higher level of priority for the well-being of people. However, this can have its drawbacks as well as its benefits.

Here are some of the advantages and disadvantages of servant leadership:

Advantages of Servant Leadership

  • Leaders can earn respect from their team members.
  • Servant leadership often fosters a shared vision and greater trust within the organization.
  • Employee input contributes to more informed decision-making and better outcomes.
  • Individuals have opportunities for advancement in a supportive environment.

Disadvantages of Servant Leadership

  • Many leaders may lack familiarity with this style.
  • Adopting servant leadership may necessitate significant cultural change.
  • This approach may not facilitate rapid decision-making.
  • There’s a risk of assigning responsibilities beyond staff capabilities.

Servant Leadership: Key Takeaways

Servant leadership, with its focus on serving and empowering others, offers a compelling and ethical approach to leadership that can lead to sustainable and positive outcomes for individuals, organizations, and communities.

Here are the key takeaways:

  • Servant leadership represents a profound shift from traditional leadership models, prioritizing the needs and growth of team members and the broader community. 
  • The seven pillars of servant leadership, as articulated by James Sipe and Don Frick, include: person of character, puts people first, skilled communicator, compassionate collaborator, foresight, systems thinker, and moral authority.
  • Servant leadership can be seen in various sectors, from business and non-profit organizations to education, healthcare, and beyond.
  • Leaders such as Mother Teresa, Nelson Mandela, and Pope Francis have exemplified these servant leadership characteristics.
  • The advantages of servant leadership are shared vision, greater trust, informed decision making, and more individual opportunities for advancement.

If you’re interested in discovering more about our leadership coaching services at Careerminds, click below to connect with our experts and determine if we’re the right fit for your organization.

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Cynthia Orduña

Cynthia Orduña

Cynthia Orduña is a Career and Business Coach with a background in recruiting, human resources, and diversity, equity, and inclusion. She has helped 50+ companies around the world hire and retain talent in cities like LA, SF, NY, Berlin, Tokyo, Sydney, and London. She has also coached over 300 people, from entry to senior levels, in developing their one-of-a-kind career paths, Her work has been featured in publications such as Business Insider, The Balance Careers, The Zoe Report, and more. To learn more you can connect with Cynthia on LinkedIn.

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